Ann Patchett shows how the 1 percent of wealthy authors can make a difference.
“I have no interest in retail; I have no interest in opening a bookstore,” Patchett told The New York Times. “But I also have no interest in living in a city without a bookstore.”
Last week Patchett and her business partner Karen Hayes opened Parnassus Books in Nashville, where the last local bookstore and the last Borders outlet closed late last year, alarming book lovers in what was once known as “the Athens of the South.”
Patchett met Hayes, an industry vet who has worked for distributor Ingram and as a sales rep for Random House, and began planning the store. After that Patchett quizzed bookstore owners and clerks she met on her summer tour in support of State of Wonder.
“The first thing I would say is: ‘How many square feet do you have? How many employees do you have? What are your hours?’ ” Patchett told the times.
Panassus Books is small — “a shoebox of a store,” Patchett told the Christian Science Monitor. “But this is the way bookstores used to be. This is the bookstore of my childhood, and I feel fantastic being back here.”
Independent bookstores have been in decline since the 1980s, when the big chains — Borders and Barnes & Noble — conspired to wrest illegal discounts from publishers and put them out of business. Now that Amazon and the digital revolution is undermining the chains, too, many communities are in danger of having no book store at all.
The loss of bookstores would be a cultural catastrophe. Bookstores like Books & Books in Miami are more than retailers. They are cultural centers where people gather to hear visiting authors, hold book clubs and writing workshops, and simply mingle with other book lovers.
Ironically, some observers think independent stores, with their capacity to quickly tailor stocks to local reader interest, may have the best chance of long-term survival.
Now that Patchett, the successful and well-off author, has put her money where her mouth is, she’s expecting readers to return the favor.
“This is not a showroom, this is not where you come in to scan your barcode,” Patchett said of a common practice in which readers pick out titles at a bookstore, then go home and order the books from Amazon. “If you like this thing, it’s your responsibility to keep this thing alive.”
But Patchett told Salon she’ll be “fine” if she loses her entire $300,000 investment. She said the experience has been “worthwhile” no matter the outcome, in terms of the publicity, and the goodwill.
“Just the fact that I have had the chance to be a spokesperson for books — to stand up for all my friends across the country who are independent booksellers, the people who have supported my career for the last 20 years — the fact that I can go on CBS and the front page of the Times and say, ‘Books are really important. Support your local bookstore.’ Unbelievable. It would be worth every dime just to do that. I would have written somebody a check just to do that.”
I can’t say why I haven’t read Patchett, author of novels like Bel Canto, Truth and Beauty, and The Magician’s Assistant, except for the old stand-by: So many books, so little time.
After the raves greeting her most recent book, State of Wonder, I’ve added her to my (lengthy) must-read list (“engagingly, consumately told,” NYTimes; “suspenseful” with “an unexpected ending,” ChiTrib).
Today, she goes to the head of the list.